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Steve Scalise Drops Out of House Speaker Race, Dems Advocate for Hakeem Jeffries

Accused of once calling himself “David Duke without the baggage,” Scalise withdrew his candidacy Thursday night.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise speaks to reporters as he leaves a House Republican caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol on October 12, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

Louisiana GOP Congressman Steve Scalise — infamously accused of once calling himself “David Duke without the baggage,” referring to a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard — on Thursday night dropped his bid to become the next speaker of the U.S House of Representatives.

“It’s been quite a journey and there’s still a long way to go. I just shared with my colleagues that I’m withdrawing my name as a candidate for the speaker designee,” Scalise told reporters, acknowledging divisions within his conference.

“This country is counting on us to come back together,” he added. “This House of Representatives needs a speaker and we need to open up the House again. But clearly, not everybody is there. And there’s still schisms that have to get resolved.”

Republicans narrowly selected Scalise, the House majority leader, as the fractured party’s nominee during a closed-door, secret-ballot election on Wednesday, but he still lacked the 217 votes needed to be elected speaker.

Some House Republicans prefer Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who is backed by 2024 GOP front-runner former President Donald Trump but reportedly offered to give a nominating speech for Scalise after losing his party’s contest.

Throughout the week, House progressives have spoken out against Scalise, with Congresswoman Summer Lee (D-Pa.) saying earlier Thursday:

I’m sickened to learn that years before he was caught calling himself David Duke without the baggage, Scalise spoke at the 2002 international white supremacist convention sponsored by a group whose website said that “Jews will attack us for wanting to restore white America and are responsible for the ‘browning’ of America” and peddled the same white supremacist and antisemitic replacement theory that motivated the murders of 11 beloved members of my community in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, 10 Black grocery shoppers in Buffalo, 23 Hispanic community members in El Paso, and 51 Muslim worshipers in Christchurch. Every Republican who votes for his speakership will vote in support of rising antisemitism, white supremacy, and Islamophobia.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) similarly wrote on social media: “Republicans have chosen a candidate for speaker who has pushed white supremacist and antisemitic conspiracy theories, calling himself ‘David Duke without the baggage.’ We must be focused on dismantling white supremacy and violence, not allowing them into our leadership.”

Reps. Becca Balint (D-Vt.), Cori Bush (D-Mo.), Jasmine Crockett (D-Texas), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have also highlighted the controversial Duke comment, which has haunted the key House Republican for nearly a decade.

Journalist Stephanie Grace wrote for Louisiana’s The Advocate in December 2014, “This is what I remember about the first time I met Steve Scalise nearly 20 years ago: He told me he was like David Duke without the baggage.”

“The ‘baggage,’ of course, was Duke’s past, his racist and antisemitic views and his former role as a KKK grand wizard,” Grace continued. “Scalise disavowed Duke then, as he did once again this week, when blogger Lamar White Jr. revealed that Scalise had spoken in 2002 at a meeting hosted by a Duke-founded white nationalist group.”

The Washington Post reported that same week in 2014 that Scalise “confirmed through an adviser that he once appeared at a convention of the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, or EURO. But the adviser said the congressman didn’t know at the time about the group’s affiliation with racists and neo-Nazi activists.”

However, Slate noted at the time that “Scalise may have just ineptly admitted to speaking at a white supremacist event that eyewitnesses say he never attended.” Duke associate Kenny Knight claimed he invited Scalise, then his neighbor and a Louisiana state representative, to address the Jefferson Heights Civic Association in a room of the hotel booked for the conference — a version of events confirmed by Barbara Noble, Knight’s ex-girlfriend.

Given Scalise’s messy baggage — and solidly right-wing voting record — some Democrats, who last week joined with a small group of far-right Republicans to oust Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as speaker, are advocating for Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).

Lee said Thursday that “I will vote for Leader Jeffries and continue my work building bridges between marginalized communities to dismantle the systems of white supremacy enabling violence against our communities.”

Rather than directly pitching himself, Jeffries, in a television appearance, called for restructuring the House “in a bipartisan way designed to allow for commonsense things to come to the floor, receive an up-or-down vote, for us to be able to actually move legislation that emerges from the Senate that is bipartisan in nature.”

Jeffries stressed that “we just need traditional Republicans to break from their extremist wing and join us in a bipartisan coalition.”

The speaker fight comes about a month away from a potential government shutdown and as some House progressives face allegations of antisemitism for speaking out against the Israeli military assault and full blockade of Gaza in retaliation for Hamas’ weekend attack — a common tactic supporters of Israel employ to try to discredit criticism of the Israeli government and military’s mistreatment of Palestinians, from apartheid to war crimes.

As Common Dreams reported earlier Thursday, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the first Palestinian American elected to Congress, faces a motion to censure spearheaded by Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Mich.) because she said that “I grieve the Palestinian and Israeli lives lost” while also asserting that “the path to that future must include lifting the blockade, ending the occupation, and dismantling the apartheid system that creates the suffocating, dehumanizing conditions that can lead to resistance.”

Fellow “Squad” members including Bush and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) have also endured attacks from fellow Democrats for condemning the killing of civilians on both sides and U.S. support for Israeli military occupation and apartheid.

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